The Significance of the Olive Tree in Palestine
By Mr. Haytham Dieck, head of the Tour Guide Program
The olive tree (botanically, European Olive) is found mainly in the Mediterranean Basin from Portugal to the Levant. This spread is because of the rich red soil (Terra Rossa). In Palestine, the olive trees are mainly planted in the Central Highlands, rich with this red soil. Olive fruit has always been an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine; the content of each fruit contains 20-30% oil. For example, Palestine’s most famous dish, Musakhan, could not be prepared by local women without olive oil.
The olive tree can reach a height between 3 and 12 meters; it has numerous branches with twisted and gnarled trunks and can live for 300-500 years and the oldest trees in the world can reach to 1500-2000 years. The olive tree in Palestine has essential economic, cultural, social, and national significance. It illustrates the Palestinian attachment to their land – olive trees resist the tough conditions of drought and poor soil conditions and remain attached to their place.
Many Palestinian families inherited olive trees over many generations, which parallels the protracted Palestinian history. Because of this, families gather every year in October, harvest the olive trees, and help each other in this process (“al Ouna” means help). They feel proud, bearing in mind their ancestors who were taking care of these trees before.
Olive fruit compromises the income of 80,000 Palestinian families. Almost half of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (48%) is planted with olive trees. 70% of food production in Palestine is accounted for by olive trees, and economically olive trees contribute to 14% of the Palestinian economy. Most olive harvesting (90%) is used for oil production, while the rest (10%) is used for olive soap and pickles.
People start to cultivate the olive tree as early as 3000 BC. For harvesting olive trees there are three traditional techniques:
The first technique is called al Bad. This consists of two stones, the horizontal stone known as the huge dish and the vertical stone that is placed above the other stone. A hole opening is made at the vertical stone, and a wood staff is placed inside to allow people or animals (donkey) to turn the stone to smash the olive fruits and turn them into a paste. Afterward, the paste is placed on a straw plate and then pressed by a heavy stone or mechanical pressing, where the olive juice pours out.
The second harvesting technique is called the overflowing oil (Zeit tfah), a simple method based on chemistry. This method is applied at the very end of the olive season (from the tree to the stone – من الشجر إلى الحجر ). First, the olive fruit is smashed by a big stone (Derdas). The act is called Dardaseh. After smashing the olive, the olive fruits are put in a hot pot, and hot water is added. Taking advantage that the density of olive (0.91-0.93 gram per cubic meter) is less than the density of water (0.99 g/m3), the oil flows above the water, and hence women use their hands only to grab the oil from the surface of the water.
The third method is called Al Baddudiyeh, was used before the olive picking season when farmers ran out of olives. Al Baddudieh means smashing the olives using a big stone. At first, to make it easier to crush, olive fruits are fired, then, later on, they are crushed in a hole. The paste produced out of this process is put in a straw plate then a heavy stone is placed on it to pour out the olive oil.
Olive trees encompass every aspect of daily Palestinian life. Zeit (oil) exists in every Palestinian family house stored in unique glass jars. For every Palestinian, the olive tree symbolizes permanence and resistance. It connects them back to their ancestors who worked daily on their land, taking care of it, just as a mother taking care of her children. And in the tiredness of the harvest season, they regain all their strength through the abundant amount of gathered olives.